Coronavirus lockdown: Uneasy calm hangs over New Delhi Railway Station

People queue up at an RPF food supply counter outside the railway station. Photo: Shine Jacob
The sound of trains grinding to a halt and chugging out of platforms is missing. The announcements over the public address system, the intermittent calls of yatriyon kripaya dhyan dein, are absent. Emptied of its heaving mass of passengers, an eerie calm hangs over the New Delhi Railway Station. But for the occasional sound of freight trains, the station seems lifeless.

The 21-day lockdown to fight the outbreak of the coronavirus has turned India’s second busiest railway station (Howrah is the busiest), with an average daily footfall of over 500,000, into a space peopled only by a smattering of railway staff.

Like the rest of the country, the staff, the Railway Police Force (RPF) and others who depend on the station for a living, find the lockdown hard to grapple with. In 1974 train operations had been similarly suspended during a 20-day railway strike. But no one here is old enough to have witnessed that.

At the entrance to the station on the Paharganj side, Deepak Kumar and four other members of the cleaning staff are busy with their work. “This is an unseen New Delhi station for us. But since the railway staff comes, we have to continue with the routine work. There’s less dirt, but it’s lifeless, too,” says Kumar.

Only 50 per cent of the cleaning staff is reporting for duty under the lockdown rules. Many of them come from distant places, but the local trains they use are not running and they are often stopped by the police.

“I stay at work for you, you stay at home for us. Fight Corona together,” reads a poster on a platform on the Ajmeri gate side. Pointing to it, station manager, Sanjay Goel, says, “More than 4,500 people work in this station. Now it has come down to a few hundred. On a normal day, 354 trains pass through New Delhi. This has come down to 45-50 trains that carry goods.”

Indian Railways has set up a prototype of the Covid isolation coach Photos: Shine Jacob
The Indian Railways is handling around 45,000-50,000 freight wagons across the country during the lockdown. “Our major freight traffic includes essential commodities like food grains, coal, steel and petroleum. The government is making a special effort to ensure that there is no shortage of sugar, salt and edible oil for the consumption of the common man,” Goel adds.
The Railways transported 1342 wagons of sugar, 958 wagons of salt and 378 wagons of edible oil during the 13-day period from March 23 to April 4.

Rakesh Sharma, a member of the station staff, is feeding the stray dogs that live on the platforms. “Before the lockdown, passengers used to feed them,” he says. “Now we make sure that they don’t go hungry.”

Sharma adds that all the major departments, including commercial, ticketing enquiry and parcel, are closed now.

A few steps away from Sharma, there is a prototype of the coronavirus isolation coach set up by the Indian Railways. The government wants to come up with 5,000 such coaches, with the capacity to accommodate around 80,000 beds.

“Some minor changes are being made to regular coaches to make them patient-friendly. We have removed the middle berth and also three berths in front of the patient bed. All the ladders, too, have been removed,” Goel explains.

The isolation coach has a modified bathroom, toilet and separate resting spaces for healthcare professionals. As per the prototype, each coach can accommodate around eight people, which can be extended to 16, if needed.

Outside the railway station, people have queued up at an RPF food supply counter. The RPF has opened the counter in association with the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation and some non-government organisations. Social distancing is maintained while distributing food. The people clean their hands with sanitisers before picking up the food packets.

“We serve around 4,500 meals daily across all the major railway stations in Delhi, including New Delhi, Old Delhi and Ghaziabad,” says Harish Singh Papola, divisional security commissioner, RPF, which has been working in full strength to ensure the security of the freight trains.

“Look around the station, and you will find several people who are without food. They were solely dependent on passenger services for a living. We serve them lunch and dinner,” Papola says.

Taking his food packet from the RPF counter, Pawan Kumar, a homeless man, says, “Saheb, rail gaadi nahi hai, magar humein jeevan gaadi toh chalani hi hai (Sir, trains are not running, but we have to run the train of our lives.”


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